New findings at Sanxingdui Ruins site

By ZENG JIANG and ZHU NA / 06-23-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A bronze altar (Left) and a bronze box covered with tortoise-shaped reticulate lids (Right) excavated from the Sanxingdui site Photos: XINHUA

On June 13, the Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeology Research Institute (hereafter Sichuan Institute) released interim achievements of archaeological excavations at the Sanxingdui Ruins site in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

New findings
From 2020 to 2022, the total excavation area of the sacrificial area at the Sanxingdui Ruins site is 1,834 square meters. Archaeologists have basically confirmed that the sacrificial area is roughly a northwest-southeast directional rectangular area, with an area of nearly 13,000 square meters. According to Ran Honglin, director of the Institute of Sanxingdui Archaeology at the Sichuan Institute, as of May 2022, the excavations of pits No. 3 to No. 6 have been completed. Among those pits, archaeological work at pits No. 3 and No. 4 has reached a final stage, objects unearthed from pits No. 5 and No. 6 have been sent to laboratories and are being cleaned and sorted, while archaeologists at pits No. 7 and No. 8 are picking up buried items. 
A total of 13,000 relics—including 3,155 cultural relics in a relatively complete structure—were recovered from six pits on the site. Many unearthed artifacts have never been seen before, such as a bronze box covered with tortoise-shaped reticulate lids, with a green jade ware piece inside, a bronze dragon-shaped ornament with a zhang-shaped [zhang refers to an ancient Chinese ritual artifact] decoration on its head, and a jade bi [a jade object carved in the form of a flat disk with a hole in the center] with three holes unearthed in Pit No. 7, as well as the bronze altar and a bronze dragon-shaped artifact with a pig’s nose excavated from Pit No.8.
New clues to cultural integrity
According to the Sichuan Institute, those newly discovered artifacts feature a mixture of typical local cultural relic styles as well as those from other places in China at that time, evidence of the close cultural connection between Sanxingdui and other parts of the country. The bronze zun, bronze lei, and bronze bu [zun, lei, and bu are three types of ancient Chinese vessels] unearthed from pits No.3 and No. 8 are typical bronzeware used in the Central Plain during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th–11th century BCE). The jade cong [hollowed-out cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside] found in pits No.3 and No.4 are similar to those excavated in Gansu and Qinghai provinces in northwest China, dated to the Qijia Culture period (c. 2000–1900 BCE). Artifacts like the jade zhang and jade ge [dagger-axe] unearthed from pits No.3, No.7, and No.8 were also previously found in Henan, Shaanxi, and Shandong provinces as well as south China.
The bronze sacred tree, the kneeling figure with a zun on the top, and a large number of dragon-shaped artifacts indicate that the self-identity, rituals, and religions of the Sanxingdui people were close to those in other regions of China. It indicates that the ancient Shu culture, to which the Sanxingdui site belonged, was a key part of Chinese civilization.
Research and conservation
As the excavation of the archaeological site continues, the cleanup and conservation of the unearthed cultural relics are being carried out simultaneously. Xie Zhenbin, a leading conservator at the Sichuan Institute, noted that archaeologists there adhered to the principle of collecting as much historical information as they can and conserving the relics using best practices. They explored the relationship between the environment and corrosion of bronzeware through electrochemical monitoring of the environment where the bronzeware was preserved. Microscopic observation revealed remains of silk and traces of making and using jade artifacts. Techniques such as Micro-CT, scanning electron microscope (SEM), and Raman spectroscopy were applied in the preliminary analysis of the structure, composition, and casting processes of some typical bronzeware, jade artifacts, and corrosion products. In the finishing stage, through meticulous, standardized cleaning and reversibly physical solidification, a trove of important artifacts such as the kneeling figure with a zun on the top and the gold mask are able to “stand up” and be exhibited to the public.
This excavation showed that these sacrificial pits dated from about 3,200 to 3,000 years ago, during the late Shang Dynasty. Studies reveal that the bronze casting techniques applied in the Sanxingdui bronzeware were a combination of the piece-mold casting (fanzhu casting) and section-mold casting (fenzhu casting), and adopts techniques such as riveting and xin-gu (a structure used as a support from the inside). Microscopic observation and silk protein analysis found silk remains in several pits, filling a gap in historical studies as no physical evidence of silk dated to the Xia (c. 21st–16th century BCE) and Shang dynasties has previously been found in southwest China. The plant remains among the burned ashes detected in Pit No.4 were mainly bamboo, together with plants such as phoebe, broad-leaved trees, palm trees, reeds, wild cabbage, soybeans, and juye xiangli [Dysphania schraderiana (Roemer & Schultes) Mosyakin & Clemants]. Research of the plant remains yielded greater understanding of the natural environment of the ancient Shu Kingdom at that time: the climate was warm and humid, and the sacrificial area was close to a river and was thickly vegetated. Analysis of animal remains showed that the sacrificial animals included cattle and wild boars.